In the nets, CURTIS JOSEPH looks off balance and unconventional, but he gets the job done, mainly because the man behind the mask is extremely balanced and conventional.
I'm standing behind a tall man who has lift his son onto his shoulders to see the Toronto Maple Leafs' players as they get off the bus and enter the Air Canada Centre deep into the playoffs p last spring.
"Who is that, daddy?" a kid asks as a tall blond player walks by.
"That's Mats Sundin," his father says.
One-by-one the kid quizzes his dad. He isn't as good at identifying the rest of the Toronto players without their uniforms on.
Finally, the kid spots a smallish, simple-looking guy and says, "Hey, daddy, isn't that Curtis Joseph?"
The father isn't positive, but he goes along with his son.
Then someone else in the crowd yells, "Cujo!"
The nondescript player turns and waves. Curtis Joseph is anonymous no more.
Last spring, he led the Maple Leafs into the Eastern Conference finals. This season, his team sits atop its division, and through last Thursday he was second overall in the NHL in wins and third overall in saves and save percentage. In his 11th NHL season, Joseph has established himself as the best goaltender in the NHL who has not won a Stanley Cup. And as the NHL's All-Stars meet February 6 in Toronto, Joseph will be the starting goalie for the North American All-Stars. He is certain to be a central figure that afternoon--and for the rest of the season.
Most of us struggle to find our identity, but Joseph, 30, had to wait nearly 20 years even to begin to find out who he truly was. In fact, you might say Joseph hid behind his mask in life as well as on the ice.
"I was so shy that the minister at Sunday School petrified me," Joseph admits. "I was scared of my shadow."
He was born in Keswick, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, to Wendy Munro, an unwed mother who named him Curtis after his biological father and her high school sweetheart, Curtis Nickle. Marriage was out of the question, so Curtis was handed over for adoption.
Jeanne and Harold Joseph--a couple in their mid-40s with four grown children--adopted Curtis five days after his birth. Jeanne was a registered nurse at the hospital and an acquaintance of Wendy. She had another adopted son, 5-year-old Grant Eakins, who became file guiding force in Curtis' life.
Grant, now married and living with his flintily in Toronto, took young Curtis under his wing. They faced the challenges of adoption together.
"There was always food in the refrigerator," Joseph says of his childhood.
Others describe a cold, lonely, slightly spooky environment. Both of Joseph's adoptive parents threw themselves into running a special care home for men with brain-related injuries, showing little obvious affection for the boys while at the same time imposing strict discipline. Curtis and his brother were provided the necessities, but little beyond that.
"I didn't feel underprivileged," he says. "I don't think I'd change anything. They say everything you go through in your childhood builds character and inner strength."
Joseph says he can remember when he was in second grade, and the teacher asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. "A lot of kids said doctor or lawyer or mailman," Joseph recalls. "I said hockey player. There was only one problem, my Mom thought it was a rough sport. It wasn't until I was 11 that she relented."
But there was a long way between being given permission to play hockey and establishing himself in the NHL. As he grew up, no one in the hockey world noticed a chunky goaltender named Curtis Munro, as he still was known, lie wasn't on any scouting lists. No one was lining up to offer him a scholarship.
Finally, he got a break.
A man who worked in a local Milt market suggested Joseph contact Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. lie had sent his son there. Luckily, the team was in need of a goaltender, and Curtis was offered a spot on the team.
He moved into a trailer that he shared with five other players. Initially, he drew snickers because of his hand-me-down equipment.
"I had the real bad equipment," he remembers. "The pads were heavy. My glove was like a piece of paper. I only started to improve when I got new equipment, a glove you can catch with."
The incumbent goalie, Willie Mitchell, gave Joseph some of his equipment, and Joseph ultimately took Mitchell's starting spot and led Notre Dame to the Tier II Canadian championship. From Notre Dame, he went to the University of Wisconsin, where he finally changed his last name to Joseph and began to attract the attention of NHL scouts. He had a 21-11-5 record, with a 2.49 goals-against average and won many awards. A year later he became the starting goaltender for the University of Wisconsin and the next year he was signed as a free agent by the St. Louis Blues.
"Curtis proved to be a leader at Wisconsin, on and off the ice," Blues executive Ron Caron recalls. "He was as good a player as has ever emerged out of nowhere at age 21."
A fierce competitor, Joseph patiently waited his turn in the Blues' organization, serving as an understudy to Vincent Riendeau for two seasons. And he was plagued by injuries--a shoulder and a knee. The Blues actually gave up on Joseph once, offering him in 1993 to New Jersey in a compensation package for signing free-agent Brendan Shanahan. Devils G.M. Lou Lamoriello rebuffed the offer, calling Joseph "an overpaid, average goalie who is prone to injury."
Joseph rebounded from the criticism to become the Blues' No. 1 netminder two months later.
It was after that season that Joseph established himself, single-handedly taking the Blues to seven games in the second round of the playoffs, turning back 61 of 63 shots in a Game 1 two-overtime loss to Toronto.
One year later, he underwent his biggest test. Mike Keenan, who had taken over as G.M.-coach in St. Louis, singled out Joseph for criticism. He played head games with Cujo, pulling him out of games, dressing him down in front of teammates.
"I couldn't imagine anyone treating other human beings that way," Joseph says. "I had had it. I even cleared his (Keenan's) desk one day when our conversation got a little heated. The trade to Edmonton (for Shayne Corson and Marty Reasoner on July 28, 1995) was the best thing that ever happened to me. I couldn't take it anymore."
Joseph's career continued to rise in Edmonton, and his career there included two more great playoff performances, beating highly-regarded Dallas and Colorado in consecutive years in 1997 and 1998. But the financially strapped Oilers were in no position to keep the attractive unrestricted free agent in July '98.
While the Flyers and Rangers both showed interest in Joseph, the Maple Leafs took advantage of a chance meeting between team president Ken Dryden and Don Meehan, Joseph's agent, at a Western Toronto convenience store.
"I went into the store thinking only about ice cream," Dryden recalls. "And I came out thinking that Joseph could be the final piece to make the Maple Leafs a contender for the Stanley Cup."
Joseph's style of goaltending is acrobatic. Or as former Flames coach Pierre Page says, "He has no style. He's not very predictable. He's usually down on the ice, scrambling, but he always seems to find a way to get in front of the puck.
"He's a gambler, but he knows the percentages."
Though he often looks like he's off-balance and in trouble, Joseph claims it's an illusion.
"I know I don't look pretty all the time, but as long as I'm in balance, I'm OK," he says. "I've seen clips of some of my saves (he laughs), and I've never known the league to give style points for how you stop the puck."
"He plays with a lot of heart," Blackhawks center Doug Gilmour says, "and that seems to rub off on the rest of the team."
Like a great shot-blocker in the NBA, Joseph, more than any other goaltender in the NHL, turns his saves into momentum-swinging stops.
"I don't know how many times it looked like we had him beaten, and the Maple Leafs came right down and scored on us," Flyers center Eric Lindros recalls from a first-round playoff meeting last spring. "That kind of goaltending can really take the air out of you."
Stars coach Ken Hitchcock calls Joseph one of the most dangerous playoff goalies he has seen, though Joseph never won a second-round matchup until last spring when he beat Philadelphia in the first round and Pittsburgh in the second.
"The Eastern Conference can have him as far as I'm concerned," Hitchcock says. "One--year it was Dallas, the next year Colorado and last year Philadelphia in the first round. I don't want to have to face him any more in the playoffs."
"It's no coincidence that this team's fortunes have picked up since Cujo arrived," Sundin says. "Knowing how good he is at stopping the puck gives us the confidence to take chances offensively that other teams wouldn't for fear of leaving their goalie hanging out to dry."
Off the ice, Joseph may have had a difficult beginning, but he now is widely acclaimed as one of the most generous athletes in sports. As part of his deal with the Leafs, Joseph receives the use of a luxury box at Air Canada Centre. The suite, valued at $200,000 per season, allows underprivileged, handicapped and seriously ill children to see games.
It's just a little payback for his difficult childhood.
With the help of his older stepsisters, Curtis met his biological mother in 1990. She put him in touch with his paternal grandmother, and through her, he finally met Curtis Nickle in February 1993.
"I always wanted to see where I had come from," Joseph says. "That's something I was searching for growing up--an identity.
"Things as simple as traits you might have. You know you do certain things, but never realize that some of it may have come from heredity."
Not a day goes by when Curtis Joseph doesn't have children on his mind. First and foremost are his own kids, Madison, Taylor and Tristan and his wife, Nancy. Then there are the multitude of Cujo's Kids across Canada who are helped by Joseph's charities.
"I am who I am now," Joseph says "and I wouldn't change that for anything."
Associate editor Larry Wigge covers hockey for THE SPORTING NEWS.